2007 - 2022

Bus Stop Birmingham Debate

CFzQZqZXIAIxCSIBy @pastachips

It’s just a bus stop advert – but the reaction to it has felt alarmingly vitriolic. The advert I’m talking about is this one (right), which seeks to make its audience aware that Viva Street, a listing site akin to GumTree, has an adult services section. Since being made aware of the existence of these ads, the response from feminists has ranged from shock at an advert “selling women”, “treating women like a product”, and “promoting women as merchandise”, while ‘new broadcaster for Scotland’ Broadcasting Scotland opined “pity it doesn’t say the media company clearly on the poster. A bit of direct lobbying might make them rethink their clients … Don’t know which I find more sickening; the media company accepting the ad or the company placing it”.

It’s totally valid to criticise the advert – the wording of which implies that “a little bit” of sex workers can be ‘bought’ – but the feminist responses that I saw uncritically reproduced and re-emphasised the problems of the wording, rather than challenging it. The idea that sex work is “selling women”, so we sell ‘ourselves’ – or even ‘a little bit’ of ourselves – when we sell sex is a profoundly misogynous notion: as Lori Adorable once noted, it’s the “standard misogynist narrative of penetration equalling ownership or occupancy, turned up to eleven”. I don’t “sell myself” or my body when I do sex work any more than I’d “give myself” or my body to a man if I had a one night stand with him. (Of course this trope invariably assumes heterosexuality in women – indeed, it barely makes sense applied to queer sex, which tells you something of how patriarchal it is.)

The advert is one iteration of this bad and wrong idea; phrases like “selling women” and “women as merchandise” are a much more forceful edition of the same thing, and maybe doubly hurtful because I’d hope that other women might understand how harmful the idea that we somehow fundamentally ‘belong to’ to the person – or people – we have sex with is; or that our ‘worth’ or ‘selves’ are somehow given away with sex. (Sex workers had further criticisms of the way the advert was discussed, with Desi sex worker @desiredxthings wryly responding to the contention that “search terms like ‘Indian’ or ‘blonde’ suggests [Viva Street] doesn’t see women as fully human” by tweeting: “I’m Not Human, I’m Indian”.)

Beyond the immediate use of language, though, the reaction spoke to wider anxieties about space and class. Melissa Gira Grant has written about the campaign by American feminist and evangelical groups to shut down the adult services section of Craigslist, arguing that “websites such as Craigslist used to make sex work visible online. If you were looking for an apartment or at the gigs sections on the front page, erotic services were right next to them, which made quite a statement and I think provoked some anxiety that it was just treated as another service on the site”. If you can purchase a blowjob in the same space that you can purchase a second hand bike or put up a ‘lost cat’ notice, that’s troubling to people because it feels like the ‘encroachment’ of something coded as ‘Other’ onto a space coded as ‘normal’, everyday. It’s not hard to see that dynamic at work here, for example in the mis-description of the advert as an “escort ad”, which evokes an image of something much more sexually full-on than the reality. The visual evidence of sex work in ‘normal’ spaces, whether that’s a listings site or a bus stop ad, is mislabelled as much more ‘sexually aggressive’ than it actually is – to both reflect and further provoke the anxieties from which the outrage springs. (It’s not an escort ad, of course: an escort ad is an ad for a specific worker. This advert is an ad for a subsection of a listings site.)

Anxieties about space (what is normal, and default; what is ‘Other’, sexually threatening, and encroaching) are often also anxieties about class and race, especially when commercial sex and the visibility of the sex trades is in contention. As such, the MP contacted in the initial outrage tweeted in support of the feminist outcry, adding to her tweet of support the hashtags “#alittlebitoffeminism” and “#alittlebitofclass”. A little bit of class! Echoes of Tina Fey’s hard-to-forget comment, “I love to play strippers and to imitate them … I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that”. #Alittlebitbetterthanthat, eh. It’s certainly not unknown for women with ‘impeccable’ feminist views regarding the sex industry (by which I mean, the belief that criminalisation is a kindness which solves the problems of marginalised people) to observe, in response to concerns about safety and policing: “I don’t think we need to have an obvious whorehouse next to the greengrocer’s in Marchmont, thank you”. The greengrocer’s in Marchmont! If leafy sandstone Marchmont isn’t safe (for who?) from the visual assault that is sex workers in the community, maybe nowhere is. Does nowhere have #alittlebitofclass anymore?

Leafy Marchmont, it’s greengrocer and it’s “obvious whorehouse” (both now closed – perhaps the above sentence, when first uttered, unleashed an ancient curse?) are subject to one kind of policing; meanwhile, questions of sex work, visibility are disgust are policed in other ways across the media. Broadcasting Scotland’s view that it’s a “pity it doesn’t say the media company clearly on the poster. A bit of direct lobbying might make them rethink their clients … Don’t know which I find more sickening; the media company accepting the ad or the company placing it” irresistibly recalls Eva Gantz’s recent piece regarding tech’s quarantining of sex work: “even just the proximity of association with sex workers is too much to be borne … The true discomfort … stems from the idea that sex workers are dirty, unimportant, and worlds away from a respectable woman”. After all, there are legitimate ways to express concern about the content or the placement of the ads (and it’s worth noting that there are plenty of examples of sex workers criticising sex industry advertising, including getting bad ads taken down), but to find Viva Street itself “sickening” goes beyond concerns about context or content, and instead suggests that the only non-emetic option for the company would be to cease to host sex work ads at all: as it is, Viva Street is “sickening” for doing business with sex workers, and other companies are “sickening” for doing business with Viva Street.

If no listing pages took our ads, sex workers would be even more reliant on managers – those “obvious whorehouses” – or the street. Or does crowdfunded Broadcasting Scotland think everyone pays their bills with indiegogos? Feminist-framed anxieties around sex work as contagion aren’t hard to trace in Scotland’s new media: consider trying to be #alittlebitbetterthanthat.


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Comments (22)

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  1. David says:

    ‘The idea that sex work is “selling women”, so we sell ‘ourselves’ – or even ‘a little bit’ of ourselves – when we sell sex is a profoundly misogynous notion.’


    Lets overlook that anyone (yes that includes any men/boys) who feel like they need to make their bodies available for money is a profound failure of civilization and just go straight to the misogynistic notion of how we should describe, or not describe, prostitution.

    Some day, some how people are going to start seeing that kind of s**t for the insanity that it is.

    1. colin says:

      Everybody who works sells their body. I have diseases and injuries from my work underground. Why are some parts of our bodies more important than others? Pathetic moralism that seeks to divide the working class – ALL of us who have no assets except our bodies to sell.

      1. Kimberley Cadden says:

        i don’t understand your point here? I don’t see the class aspect unless you mean that work where your body is your only asset is by definition ‘working class’ work, but this is clearly not true as there are many types of work that aren’t ‘working class’ where the ‘body’ is the ‘asset’ and indeed where illness/injury is common (like with every sports person, just for example); and in addition there are lots of ‘working class’ jobs where the body is not the only asset by a long shot so this point seems mute; we have to be careful that we aren’t trying to tie class into this in order to deflect from the real issues and responsibilities that come with such a matter, and indeed its consideration….

        But i replied here because i think this is an important point; objectively people may have different views on what ‘selling your body’ means and as the original poster said, if this is based on the idea that penetration equals ownership then it is misogynistic. However subjectively it is quite different; for example i know many people who have been prostitutes and there are forms of self compromise that all of them experienced in some way, to some degree, that meant they felt they sold ‘themselves’ – as best i can tell it’s along the lines of someone using your body for their gratification – which is of course very different to other forms of work where your body is your asset but it isn’t used by someone else as they wish – i.e. that is not what is being sold. So in a way I understand it as using your body to make money isn’t the same as selling the use of your body to make money – the latter of course both being and creating a different set of conditions which as i say in my experience, with the women and men I know, meant a form of self compromise to a very destructive point emotionally. So the notion of what it means to sell yourself can mean much both objectively and subjectively – some justified, some not….for me i just see it subjectively – I would never say that a person was ‘selling themselves’ from an objective viewpoint, but I would argue that many live the reality that they have ‘sold themselves’, because this is their subjective experience…..

  2. leavergirl says:

    Whitewashing prostitution via “sex work” is repugnant. The advert is repugnant. And yes, the discussion ought to be about prostitution itself, not just how it is described in adverts, for crying out loud. And what about the idea that prostitution, or gambling, or shooting up heroin, should not be advertised at all?

  3. barakabe says:

    I literally can’t make head nor tail of what this article is trying to say- what is the point of it- really? I’m someone who reads pretty abstruse academic articles on a daily basis & after reading it a couple of times I still don’t get the ‘point’. All I kind relate it to are those kinds of strange modern people who decorate their bodies in tattooed advertisements for products & believe they’re empowering themselves ( ie they’re being remunerated by a company) or contemporary consumers who believe they’re establishing some form of authentic identity by means of product acquisition. How far or deep does coercion go? We know coercive ciphers are embedded into the deep structures of culture & so we’re not even aware of the coercive nature of these ‘signs’ or ciphers- maybe this visual sign of embedded structures in the form of an advert makes it more apparent how our wider hegemonic culture views women, sex & the human body- like a sort of pre-conscious mirror? Who knows. Arguing for prostitution to be viewed as some form of empowerment seems akin to the arguments neo-liberal extremists make about third world workers on 50p a day: a “it’s fifty pence or starvation” kinda argument is hardly progress. Imagine going back in time to talk to someone like Keir Hardie & describing how fifty years after his death man would be on the moon but a hundred years after his death we would have the rise of an aggressive rentier class in the UK just as it was in the Victorian era…that’s progress? Just like coercion ( & those being coerced are often the least equipped to recognize their own manipulation) progress is very difficult to define & measure.
    Nonetheless this is a very odd article indeed.

    1. Pastachips says:

      Could you point me to where in this piece I argue that sex work is “empowering”?

    2. DR says:

      It’s an article which does assume a certain pre-existing knowledge of a complex discourse (in which the sorts of naive attitudes expressed in comments above are at least temporarily suspended). At root, what it’s saying is that there are obvious issues with the content of the ad, but that these are – typically – being conflated with the *existence* of the ad. Both ad and article are saying that sex work exists (is ubiquitous, and not actually restricted to certain ‘classes’ of places and people). The article is saying that it is at best disingenuous (and more often actively harmful) to pretend otherwise, yet this is what critics of the ad are doing, rather than addressing the misogynist/dehumanising concept of all sex as transfer (which applies to all women and most people on the receptive side of penetration).

      It is pointing out that the stigma attached to the ad, is in fact a stigma applying to all women (sex is a thing to offer, not an act to participate in) which is only mitigated by making the ‘correct’ offer of sex for love, not sex for money (or sex for fun). It’s arguing that it’s the concept of sex-for itself that’s problematic, and that it is *equally* so regardless of the nature of the ‘return’. It also points out that ‘classiness’ is rarely distinct from class, and is rarely far from simply asserting a higher price for one’s favours.

      To the other commenters, I have to say: this article deliberately doesn’t touch on the civilisation-fail (which is an inherent failure of *money*) or advocate sex-work/prostitution. It only points out that all transactional sex is on the same spectrum, and logically, objecting to some of that spectrum (typically for-money and for-fun) but not others (for-love) makes no sense. And perpetuates stigma and associated harm to real people, rather than defending any ethical principle. Do you actually think a world where love is the only coin (as opposed to a motive for freely chosen actions) would be a better one?

      1. Kimberley Cadden says:

        Hmmm I think we should be careful of the assumptions we make. I do not believe that the idea women sell themselves when they sell sex is inherently misogynistic. Of course the idea that women can only offer and not partake in sex IS; but I have known many prostitutes – mostly women but a couple of men too – and many have felt this way about what they did. It wasn’t about others having certain views or attitudes, or indeed societal conditions, but rather it was about how they felt within themselves on a human level taking money for their body to be used by another person sexually (their words) and the sense of loss and self-compromise that often accompanied this which led to their feeling of selling themselves. So i think we need to know that there are many reasons such feelings can arise and it’s personal; to only view it in one way we can miss this and may even seem like we are trying to invalidate the experiences of many women (and men).

        I also have to completely disagree with the idea that the stigma attached to the ad is about the stigma attached to all women that ultimately means we should only have sex for love. I think the vast majority of people who have an issue with this ad and perhaps even with the reality of prostitution itself, will have no issue at all with sex for itself; indeed hardly anyone has an issue with sex for it’s own sake in our modern society. But sex for money is by definition not sex for itself, although that is hardly the important point here; basically prostitution brings with it a whole set of moral issues (like taking money to sleep with married men for example) that can have devastating consequences on people’s lives. Sex is never without consequence and in this regard context is all. Prostitution also can have very specific emotional and psychological affects, as well as being potentially physically damaging (many women eventually have to leave due to health issues). So even prostitution in the best kinds of circumstances, i.e. completely consensual, abuse free, safe environment etc, still brings with it the potential for massively damaging consequences and not just on the lives of the prostitutes themselves and this is what many find concerning and as a result many at the very least do not want to encourage the profession or engage with it.

        For me the ad itself is an issue for three reasons: because of the way the women are portrayed, because I would only want to see sex work ad’s if I chose to look for them and lastly that it’s a form of advertising clearly for the purposes of attracting business rather than just to make accessible a service and the encouragement of the use of prostitutes is not something I personally support.

        I understand how women can be desperate and feel they have no other choice, and I believe in complete decriminalisation in order to best uphold the rights and welfare of these women. I do not view female prostitution inherently as a form of gender violence as some schools of feminism do, but as i say even at it’s best it is a profession that can be extremely damaging so again this is why I personally do not believe in forms of advertising for drumming up business and indeed would hope as a society we can become better to the point where less need to engage in this way, whatever side of it they are on…..

    3. MBC says:

      That was my reaction too, barakabe. Incomprehensible circular waffle. Cognitive dissonance.

      Then I thought, well, maybe that’s what this industry is all about anyway – people trying to tie themselves in knots justifying the unjustifiable. Black is white, night = day, sort of thing. Maybe that’s how they live with themselves.

  4. Bob says:

    fuck me, what a nauseating **** of an article. Middle class , emancipated , autonomous happy whore, defends postage stamp liberties by employing hashtag referenced utterances from equally computer literate loudhailers.

    I couldn’t give a twat one way or the other but the truth is, the vast majority of girls for sale within the seedy fabric of these websites don’t have a voice never mind a fucking digital twitter foghorn.

    Newsflash! It’s really not that exciting, we’re all prostitutes one way or the other.

    1. Pastachips says:

      Hi Bob, could you point me to where in this article I described myself as an “emancipated”, “autonomous” or “happy” [sex worker] please?

      1. Bob says:

        If you are none of these things then perhaps you might wish to reflect on your grandiose rhetoric.
        Furthermore i am interested that you ignore the core point from my statement , i.e. that a huge percentage of the advertised flesh is exploited at the hands of others. I don’t have stats but i have experience and i would suggest that for every ‘one’ savvy, empowered ‘sex worker’ as you put it , there are a far greater number of vulnerable compromised souls….

        1. Bob says:

          OK , on account of my original post i apologise for the use of the pejorative term ‘whore’
          Now Perhaps you could answer these questions please.
          Are you yourself a ‘sex worker’?
          Do you believe, as i do that the majority of women selling sex, do not belong to the type of demographic you appear to describe within your article..?

          1. pastachips says:

            yes I am a sex worker – and since you’re all seemingly very concerned that I might work in porn or on phone sex chatlines: I sell sex. I am that kind of sex worker.

            What “type” or “demographic” of sex worker do you think I describe? Could you point me to where I describe ‘types’?

          2. bob says:

            due to the website going down you will see that i attempted to reply twice , hence the alternate versions

          3. Pastachips says:

            Neither of your replies are showing (for me), Bob

  5. barakabe says:

    I apologize if I failed to use the latest label: instead of prostitute I’ll use the term ‘sex worker’. “I’m struggling to understand why you find the idea of a company accepting sex workers’ ads to be so awful”- I will admit right off the bat that I really don’t get any of this at all- the article is so alien to my own thinking (& I would imagine most other people). Where do we draw the line if we give free license to each individual to do what they wish? I think it will be up an uphill task to integrate the sex trade as just another mainstream sector into the service industry ( even if the Tory government have included the drug & sex industries into the latest GDP figures). I mean mainstream in the sense that having adverts for escort services at bus stops, on billboards etc, I really can’t believe this will ever happen- but who knows where ‘progress’ is taking us?
    I really don’t think there’s any apartheid going on here at all, either in the form of gender or class against sex workers, as you seem to suggest- for me its more of a case of the discretion innate in current social norms: most people for example would not want to stand at a bus stop with their child & see an advert for escort services. Even extreme libertarians have to accept that there’s limits on liberty- defined by how far such liberties encroach on the liberties of others- advertising as it is at present is a basic violation of public space & the addition of potentially antagonistic adverts exacerbate that violation.
    How can sex workers themselves truly believe that they’re work is just the same as any other work, like a plumber or a nurse? There are basic psychological, social & cultural consequences of exchanging sexual favours for material gain that, I personally believe, will never be fully accepted as ‘normal’ by most human societies- that is the reality: in most societies at all times in all places the sale of sex has always been either taboo or come with fundamental social costs (mostly marginalization of some kind). “even just the proximity of association with sex workers is too much to be borne … The true discomfort … stems from the idea that sex workers are dirty, unimportant, and worlds away from a respectable woman”- this I think is very unfair indeed: there are few people today who would discriminate unfairly against individual sex workers but that doesn’t mean you can force them to accept it as part of their normal everyday life. I also don’t get how the article can mash up class-gender issues: it seems to suggest that most sex workers are poor women who either want to pay bills or pay for their education but at the same time lumps the term ‘sex worker’ in with porn performers/porn stars ( who make large amounts of money)- there has to be a more rigorous definition of the criteria to be used if debate is to progress on such matters. As I really don’t believe most folk want to see vulnerable sex workers prosecuted or criminalized ( if people are doing it out of greed that’s different I think)- but there’s a world of difference from a sex worker from a housing estate in Glasgow trying to pay for a drug habit & someone wanting to pay for a Public Relations or a Business Degree.
    It cannot be a one way street in terms of criticism- we can’t for example have sex workers preying on vulnerable men either- sex is basic biological ‘weakness’ that can be exploited (specifically in terms of financial gain). Imagine a situation where strange men were coming in & out of a residential street where children are playing etc ( some of these men may by the very nature of the trade have sexual offenses)- there would have to be some form of regulation in place. You cannot have freedom without responsibility. It is the basic price we have to pay for the privilege of being free. But license to do as desire pleases is not freedom- desire is an animal conception of freedom.

    1. Kimberley Cadden says:

      barakabe I think you make excellent points. As for the term ‘sex worker’ this can mean anything from a phone sex operator to a lap dancer to a porn performer; so for me i use the word prostitute to distinguish the kind of sex worker we are talking about; and as you say there are big differences between these different forms of sex work.

    2. nobody says:

      Whoa whoa whoa… Sex is a biological weakness? You can’t just say that and not explain what you mean! Isn’t that just the flip side of the patriarchy, where men are supposed to be dominant sex crazed beasts and women docile and submissive, which harms both genders? That’s what it comes off like anyway, I’m not sure what you mean.

      1. barakabe says:

        Obviously I don’t mean that. When I wrote that I was aware that I should put weakness in inverted commas as I knew some folk might read into that too much- but I was in a hurry & rushed the post- but what I mean to say is that exploitative & predatory forces exclusively interested in monetary gain ( such as corporations advertising products) use our sexual impulses against us (hence the reference to ‘biological weakness’). Of course sex in itself is what it is. Your hand is what it is- but someone else can clench it into a fist & smash you in the face with it, threaten you & control you with the threats. Its often the case that how we define something is how we use it: sex, the body, whether women or men’s, has become an exploitable commodity. The fetishistic nature of paternalistic capitalism has the tendency of objectifying everything, including people, nature & even being, & by consequence commodifying all things into a value system measured by monetary gain.

  6. Redgauntlet says:

    I am all for the legalization of prostitution.

    The State has no right to tell what two consenting adults do or do not do in bed, or for whatever reason. Prostitution may be a symptom of patriarchy, but so are lots of other things which are legal, such as porn. And male prostitution exists too.

    The Brits, and the Scots just as much as the English, like nothing better than to lecture and to moralize and to get on their high horse.

    Prostitutes are stigmatized and vulnerable, and the State ought to legislate to ensure that they work in conditions of the same standards and safety as any other of the service industries.

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